- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. In his illustrious 21-year career, Cal Ripken became many things to the Baltimore Orioles: World Series champion, MVP, role model, living legend.
Ripken is best known for his consecutive games streak that reached 2,632 games, a mark that redefined the term everyday player. Coincidentally, he was the only position player drafted and brought through the Orioles' farm system in the last 20 years to become an everyday player for the club.
More than anything, the long gap after Ripken is an indictment of a minor-league system that has become the bane of the once-proud Orioles organization. Unfortunately, the system has not produced nearly enough major-league ready players and has forced the big-league club to improve through trades or free agency. That philosophy is reflected on the big-league roster; Jerry Hairston is the only home-grown position player expected to start this season.
"Our last impact player [drafted] was Ripken!" said an incredulous Tom Trebelhorn, Orioles director of player development in 1999 and now a coach with the club. "It's time we found somebody. It's aberrational. By luck, by luck somebody should have come along."
The Orioles have not had that luck. In fact, their farm system has deteriorated so much in the last several years that it is generally recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, in baseball.
Baltimore's seven minor-league teams combined to finish 102 games under .500 last season. Its top two affiliates, Rochester and Bowie, finished with the worst and fifth-worst records in Class AAA and Class AA, respectively. The Rochester Red Wings broke a 42-year relationship with Baltimore, dumping the Orioles for the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles' Class AAA affiliate is now in Ottawa, Ontario.
The Orioles, under the new vice president tandem of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, have turned to Darrell "Doc" Rodgers, former Cincinnati Reds assistant general manager, to help restructure their minor-league system. It's a huge task.
"We'll go back and establish what winning is, that winning is going to be the norm in the minor leagues," Flanagan said. "And to me, that is how you produce winning players."
Retooling the farm
When Flanagan was in Class A ball in the Orioles' system in 1973, he remembers a logjam of pitchers in the minors. There was no place to go the major-league team included standouts like Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally so prospects gained more experience and were groomed at Class AA and Class AAA.
"What happens is you stockpile talent," Flanagan said. "You need that strength in numbers, and it's because of player evaluation."
The Orioles have had talented pitchers in the organization the last few years, but injuries, particularly shoulder problems, have riddled those young arms.
Those shoulder injuries have impeded the progress of high draft picks: Josh Cenate (34th pick of 1999 draft) has missed the last three seasons; Beau Hale (14th pick in 2000 draft) has had his last two seasons cut short; Chris Smith (seventh pick in 2001 draft) isn't likely to pitch this season; and Richard Stahl (18th pick in 1999 draft), once rated as the Orioles' top prospect, has not pitched above Class A Delmarva. Then there's Erik Bedard, a sixth-round pick in the 1999 draft who likely will miss the entire 2003 season after having ligament transplant surgery in September.
"We're keeping track of the number of injuries we've had in the organization and done some research on why," Flanagan said last month. "And we're going to try to do some things a little bit differently in regards to the pitching, [but] we haven't finalized it yet."
Flanagan said the club is making more adjustments by:
Responding to reports that players have received different instruction at different levels of the minors. The team plans to compile an organizational manual that will guide managers and instructors at all minor-league levels.
Empowering minor-league managers to enforce discipline more easily and instituting a reward system in which players adhere to instruction and "produce the way we want them to produce. It's going to go back to maybe taking the onus back off the individual and back on the team," Flanagan said.
Expanding the Orioles' visibility in Latin America and establishing some in East Asia and Australia, where the Orioles have not had any scouting presence.
Flanagan said the organization wants to monitor pitch counts in the low minors and work on building pitchers' workloads steadily as they progress through the system. Then again, Flanagan said, he sees pitchers at the upper levels who tend to tail off late in the season, as if they have not thrown enough in the low minors.
Flanagan generally wants to mandate that pitchers throw about 400 innings in the minors before being promoted to the big leagues. Rodgers said the club wants to get pitchers out of Class A ball and then up their workloads.
Last year's No.4 overall draft choice, 6-foot-6 Canadian pitcher Adam Loewen, has not signed with the Orioles and is prepared to go back into the draft if he is not signed before May 27. The Orioles reportedly offered him a signing bonus of $2 million, well below Loewen's request of $4 million.
"Talks are cordial," scouting director Tony DeMacio said. "He wants to be an Oriole."
The new regime
Rodgers, hired in mid-January, has impressed club officials with his organizational skills and communication, qualities that will serve him well as he takes on a challenging project.
"He's very organized. He has a way of attacking each problem," Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio said. "He knows what he wants to do. He is very open-minded and a very good communicator."
When Rodgers was hired he insisted that the system didn't need to be torn down. He said he's not worried about the caliber of players in the organization he can't lament what he doesn't have. He has found many things the organization has done well, including an abundance of good baseball people throughout the system. The club fired just one minor league manager from last season but reassigned several to different positions within the organization.
"I definitely sense that there's not as far to go as is the perception," Rodgers said. "That's my early assessment. A lot of things that have to get better are easy fixes."
Like the lines of communication, which several officials have said improved since Beattie and Flanagan took over the front office.
Rodgers also said he wants to leave the past in the past, examining some things the organization did poorly but not belaboring the missteps.
"Stability and consistency are keys," Rodgers said. "It's easy to look at organizations with good track records and see that."
Trebelhorn points out that even though the farm system has not produced many big-league-ready players, things could change quickly. He mentioned Brian Roberts and Larry Bigbie as players he thought would have become regulars in the majors by 2003, but as it stands now, both probably will be in Ottawa to start the season.
"I haven't given up on 'em," Trebelhorn said. "Those guys all have the ability, I thought and still think, to be good major league players."

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